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Livestock Producers' Drought Aid Held Up By Congress

The proposed NBAF lab at in Manhattan, Kan., would guard the nation's food supply against diseases like bird flu and Mad Cow disease.
Harvest Public Media
The proposed NBAF lab at in Manhattan, Kan., would guard the nation's food supply against diseases like bird flu and Mad Cow disease.

As one of the worst droughts in 50 years ravages the Midwest, livestock producers are left without a safety net, watching their herds suffer or be sold because there’s nothing else to do. 

Farmers growing crops have insurance to ward off the financial failure of their season, but cattle and pork producers don’t have such assistance. Any emergency drought relief from the government died in programs that ended last year. Aid provisions for this year are pending in the Farm Bill, which is stalled in Congress.

Stacey McCallister, a dairy producer in south-central Missouri, wonders why farmers are being ignored when victims of other natural disasters receive assistance. He tried to get a loan at a USDA office in Columbia, Mo., and was told that he wouldn’t be eligible until after he files his federal income taxes next year.

“Why is a farmer in a natural disaster different than anyone else?” McCallister wrote on Harvest Public Media’s Facebook page. “I bet victims of Katrina and other tragedies don’t have to wait till they do their taxes.”

McCallister said he has about 60 days worth of feed left for his animals. After that, he might be forced to sell the herd, he said. In the first time in anyone’s memory, Congressional members postponed action on the Farm Bill until after the August break.

Republican leadership in the House sidelined the bill because conservative members are demanding more cuts and a different approach to ag policy, according to Politico reporter David Rogers.

“Never before in modern times has a farm bill reported from the House Agriculture Committee been so blocked,” Rogers wrote. “Politico looked back at 50 years of farm bills and found nothing like this.”

Finally last week, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, seemed to backpedal a bit, telling a reporter that he may come up with a disaster aid package for livestock producers. But Politico reported that Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., the House Ag Chair, appeared surprised at the statement and didn’t have any specifics on Boehner’s idea.

Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack, already frustrated at the Farm Bill stall, said he didn’t believe that Boehner had a concrete plan, with specifics or finances. And if Boehner has a coalition together to pass emergency measures, Vilsack wondered why he wouldn’t pass the larger, more important measure that already passed the Senate and had bipartisan support in the House Ag Committee.

“For the life of me I don’t understand why we can’t get this done. If you really put the time and the effort into it, I think it could be done,” Vilsack told Harvest Public Media in an interview last week. “I’m frustrated because I see the pain on the faces of the producers I talked to yesterday.”

After an outcry, mostly from farm state representatives, the GOP leadership said the House might consider a one-year extension to the Farm Bill this week, before Congress recesses. That’s when any livestock disaster aid would be approved. Last week, Vilsack opened up some government-protected conservation and wildlife lands for grazing, hoping to get some feed for cattle farmers and ranchers.

But that doesn’t offer much help either, McCallister said. There’s little conservation land available, thanks to an increase in crop production because of high prices, it’s difficult to graze cattle where there are no fences, and the grasslands are as scorched as the rest of the area, he said.

“This drought is very widespread in my area,” McCallister said. “If there was grass there, it’s straw now because it’s burned up.”

Harvest Public Media, based at KCUR, is a collaborative public media project that reports on important agriculture issues in the Midwest. Funded by a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Harvest Public Media has reporters at six NPR member stations in the region. To learn more, visit www.harvestpublicmedia.org, like Harvest Public Media on Facebook or follow @HarvestPM on Twitter.

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